Research Summary

Association of neighborhood parks with child health in the United States

National study links neighborhood parks to children’s physical and mental health

Preventive Medicine

Research on links between neighborhood parks and human health generally indicates that the presence of parks may support mental and physical health. Such research, however, has focused more on adults than children.  Related research focusing on children has generally been limited to small groups in particular communities. This research addresses these gaps by investigating whether the presence of a neighborhood park is associated with physical or mental health of a nationally representative sample of American children.

Researchers used data from the U.S. Census Bureau's 2016 National Survey of Children's Health (NSCH) to assess whether the presence of a neighborhood park is associated with the physical or mental health of children (age 0-17).  In completing the survey, 49,146 caregivers shared information about their children's physical and mental health, access to quality health care, and the child’s family, neighborhood, school, and social context. Health-related items on the survey asked about the child's physical activity, screen-time, sleep, weight, and diagnosis of anxiety, depression, or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Other survey items asked about the presence of a neighborhood park or playground, the child and family sociodemographics, and – for 29 states – neighborhood urbanicity. The researchers then compared differences in characteristics of children between those with and without neighborhood parks.

Results showed that most children had a park in their neighborhood. There were some differences, however, in who had neighborhood parks and who did not. In urban areas, African American children were more likely than white, non-Hispanic children to lack neighborhood parks. Children in non-urban locations or below the federal poverty level also had higher odds of not having a park in their neighborhood. Findings also showed health-related differences between children with and without neighborhood parks. Children lacking neighborhood parks were more likely to (1) have an ADHD diagnosis, (2) be overweight or obese, and (3) demonstrate poor health behaviors, including having no weekly physical activity, excess recreational screen-time, and inadequate sleep. An unexpected result showed that children lacking neighborhood parks were not more likely to have a diagnosis of anxiety or depression.

The overall findings of this research suggest that neighborhood parks may support children’s physical and mental health.  The increased provision of neighborhood parks could thus “represent a low-cost childhood health intervention.”